Jon Richards, Saving Us From Ourselves

Last month, during the flap over Elizabeth Warren’s speech about Jeff Sessions, Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor in defense of civility.

“I am just telling you that if this body loses the ability to have those sorts of debate, then where in this country is that going to happen?” he said. “What other forum in this nation is that going to be possible?”

That forum is what Jon Richards built.

Many of you, my friends, look to my Facebook feed for an interesting word here or there about politics. Some insight. The occasional polemic. Reason.

You see that from me in small part because Jon Richards helped show me, even now, even in the hell that is our politics today, that there is an appetite for political discussion that can be both partisan and reasoned.

We are in grief. It’s hard to describe what Richards meant to politics in Georgia — and means to the country — but it’s worth trying. 

Peach Pundit — now — is unlike anything in politics I can find elsewhere. The enterprise started as a lark, a sideline by people putting together what would become RedState, as a place to dish inside dirt about Georgia politics.

Over time, a stable of contributors emerged, broadly experienced in the unsexy mechanisms of government, widely respected for their wit and acumen, and deeply respectful of the work of their fellow contributors, regardless of their politics.

In this, we are filling a gap left by our eviscerated media institutions. And we fill it with something other than the toxic bile that partisan “news” operations use to generate outrage instead of enlightenment.

We’ve become more than a debating society, which befits an entrepreneur who cared about practical results. This space moves policy. But only because this is a place fit for reasoned discourse.

Activists — left and right — in other states would do well to try to copy the model. But the model is heavily dependent on leadership that will generally place reasoned discourse above partisan advantage or financial gain. The people who created and curate this forum have been careful to guard a sense of civility and a respect for honesty. People like Charlie Icarus Harper-Writer, Stefan Turkheimer, Mike Hassinger … and Jon Richards.

Mike, Charlie and Jon brought me on at Peach Pundit four years ago, after some months of writing in defense of the Occupy movement … followed by writing about the woes of the DeKalb school board. They were looking for contrarian voices and intellectual diversity.

Richards and the others made a deliberate choice to be ideologically inclusive. Consider how few spaces online that an Occupy Wall Street-cum-Black Lives Matter progressive like myself, and Jessica Szilagyi, a perspicacious libertarian, might cohabitate in ways that don’t end in poison and chaos today.

It only works because of the tone Richards helped establish.

I am, today, deeply concerned about the direction of the country. I view our president with dread and horror. I rail at our circumstances, at him, at my country at times. But my work with Jon has been a constant reminder to separate the political arguments from the people making them, to remember that reasonable people can come to fundamentally different conclusions from the same set of facts, and that questioning the motivations of one’s opponents leads to more harm than good.

How rare that admonition is, today! How fragile it is to hold. How easy it is to fail.

It would also be easy to describe Jon as a political “moderate.” To be clear, Jon was a conservative Republican. But he was an open-minded man. In that, he was passionately, vigorously equitable. He cultivated broad opinion. He did not approach politics with the cynical zeal that narrowly partisan primaries and fundraising scream sheets demand of our political leaders. He wanted a society that, first and always, actually functioned. The details matter.

That’s what drove him to attend hearings and hold forums, and to cultivate a stable of young writers who are more dedicated to reason than outrage.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that his work embodied an indispensable lesson; that we must listen to one another again honestly regardless of political biases, if we are to save ourselves from our own excesses.

In this, he was the indispensable man.

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